“Resurrection Ship, Parts 1 and 2” (episodes 11 and 12; originally aired 1/6/2006 and 1/13/2006)

Bad storytelling decisions are like time travel. No, hear me out on this: say you have a time machine and you go back in time, and you decide to change something. Something not even that big. We all know what happens next, right? We’ve read that Ray Bradbury short story. The small choice turns out to have big consequences, because you can’t see everything. A bad storytelling decision is the sort of decision whose impact is never contained. It can, under ideal circumstances, be managed and put aside, but its effect will still stretch out beyond itself. Step on one butterfly, hand the world over to the Nazis; decide to kill a character too soon, and see a storyline with incredible potential bottom out in a handful of minutes.

What’s fascinating and frustrating about watching the two parts of “Resurrection” back to back is seeing how utterly things go off the rails, and how one decision throws everything out of joint. There’s a gorgeous space battle in part two, lots of tension throughout, and the show’s usual struggle for philosophical and spiritual meaning in the midst of chaos, but all of these elements rely to a strong narrative structure to hold them in place. It’s possible there’s a version of Battlestar Galactica that loses the stakes and just has a bunch of people having visions and trying to figure out why they haven’t killed themselves, but this isn’t that show. It wants pulp thrills and depth, and while that’s a laudable goal, it’s also one that requires a near perfect balance not to fuck up.

“Resurrection” fucks up because the creative team decided Cain had to die. I’m not sure what motivated this decision; maybe Forbes wasn’t willing to commit to a longer run, maybe there were other, non-story factors at work. But as is, sacrificing her two episodes after her introduction is a mistake, and, what’s worse, the choices that build up to that mistake make the problem worse in a desperate effort at self-justification. The whole thing just feels off, in a way that makes every other element—Starbuck taking command, Lee nearly dying in space, Baltar’s efforts to reach Cain’s much abused Cylon prisoner—that much harder to take seriously.

The problem isn’t just that Cain dies. It’s that she needs to have an unexpected death, which means we have to set up an obvious threat first: namely, Roslin has to urge Adama to assassinate his superior officer, and he has to, at least for a while, agree. This is dumb. It’s not as dumb as it would be on, say, NCIS, but it’s dumb just the same. Roslin and Adama have shown themselves more than capable of hard choices in the past, but they make those choices based on what they see as an undeniable need, and after a considerable amount of soul-searching. It’s not that they’re perfectly reasonable human beings, but when they do make a rash decision, it’s something that happens in the heat of the moment, not calmly without any immediate threat on display.

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That last is important: Roslin tells Adama he’s going to have to kill Cain after the three leaders discuss what’s to be done with Helo and Tyrol. At this point, Cain hasn’t directly threatened anything. It’s definitely possible to read a threat into her behavior, and you’d have to be an idiot not to realize there’d be problems down the road, but unless Helo and Tyrol suddenly hold the key to Galactica’s survival, there’s not a lot of pressure here. It’s the sort of situation that should have developed over time, that needed multiple acts of bad faith to build before Roslin and Adama reached their breaking point. As is, you could make the case that Roslin is getting desperate because her time is running short, but she doesn’t seem particularly desperate. (The show has been a lot less interested in getting in her head of late, which is frustrating.)

Instead, the writers look to other ways to justify Adama’s orders to Starbuck; ways that paint Cain not just as a hard-ass, but as an out and out monster. She beats on her Cylon prisoner, which, while not exactly worse than allowing her subordinates to use torture and rape, still betrays a level of emotion that works to undermine her authority. Cain’s appeal lies in her appearance of control. Like Starbuck says in her eulogy, she was not a woman given to self-doubt. But while her rage doesn’t betray a lack of confidence, it does make her and her actions easier to dismiss. The real threat of Cain is in the possibility that her approach to the crisis might actually be the “correct” one—or at least the one that’s most likely to defeat the Cylons and save the human race. She works best as someone who forces our heroes to confront their insecurities over their own actions, even as they draw closer together in the face of a new threat.

Instead, she’s made into a vengeful tyrant, murdering civilians when they fight back against her orders and living hundreds, if not thousands, to die so she can pursue her own ends. None of this contradicts anything we learned in “Pegasus,” and it’s entirely possible that the backstory we get in “Part 1” was known from the start. But it still reeks of certain kind of adjustment, a shift in order to justify Roslin and Adam’s behavior to the audience even as shortcuts are being taken. It’s possible to imagine a version of this story that works, and works well, but the pacing is all wrong.

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Last week, I praised “Pegasus” for upping the ante so quickly, and I stand by that: it works in that episode like gangbusters, pushing the story in an unexpected direction and setting up a terrific cliffhanger. But the problem with narrative risks (and cliffhangers) is that everyone forgets how hard it is to manage the aftermath. Taking a hard right when the audience expects you to go left is a great way to grab attention and generate energy in the moment, but then you still have to figure out how to get to where you were going in the first place. The shock that gives the event so much impact isn’t something that’s contained, and all too often, big swerves lead to problems down the line.

We’re getting dangerously close to “how I’d fix things” territory, so let’s get ahead of that particular train: I have no idea how this could have worked. I only theorize that it could’ve worked better than it does. As is, we’re left with truncated arcs all over the place. Starbuck has to build a relationship with Cain, agree to kill her, be relieved when the order is put on hold, and then deliver a eulogy like they were good friends, all in the space of about an hour. (At least her glasses will be ready.) She gives a speech about how she thinks they were all safer with Cain around, which would be a really powerful, really ambiguous way to close the character’s storyline if we’d had a chance to see just what sort of long-term impact Cain might have had on the show. As is, the sentiment is unearned, jumping to an end result without showing any of the work required to get there.

Baltar’s efforts to reach Gina (is she ever named?) also ring false, with the show leaning heavily into mysticism and poetry to try and generate a quick relationship. It’s even more frustrating than what happens to Starbuck, because at least Starbuck’s problems are obvious and direct; the show didn’t earn her struggles, but being told you have to murder someone who’s been kind to you is a conflict which, while maybe not relatable, is at least easy to grasp. Baltar is balancing his love of Six with a woman who looks exactly like her, a woman related to her in some way we don’t understand, and he’s also growing something like a conscience, reaching out to help a stranger for reasons that go beyond self-preservation.

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That’s hugely important, especially for a character who (as much as I love him) sometimes struggles to have a place on the series. If one of the major through-lines of the show is how humans and Cylons struggle to find some sort of common ground, Baltar is more or less the center of that struggle; a symbol of all that is selfish and inconstant in our natures, but nonetheless capable of intelligence and even compassion. Seeing him actually suffer for someone else carries weight, even with all the sloppy writing, but it should have meant more. His decision to help Gina escape is a terrific moment, but it happens so suddenly that it barely registers.

And really: Baltar helps her escape so she can go kill Cain. It’s a have cake, murder too situation for Adama and Roslin, morality-wise, in a way the show usually tries to avoid. How do you solve a problem like Admiral Cain? Have an outside party get their hands dirty, removing the issue without forcing you to live with the consequences. This should have looked like poetic justice, with Cain taken out by someone with who has every reason to despise her, but instead it plays like the show backing away from a hard choice. That’s not what we signed on for. Worse, they even try to end it with an action hero exchange: Cain says, “Frak you,” and Gina replies, “You’re not my type.” Because y’know, women who’ve been brutalized for weeks on end are always really quick with the one-liners before they murder their tormentors.

I’m being hard on the episode (mostly the second part), because it’s frustrating to see all kinds of good ideas get dragged down by one bad call. Everything in the second half of the two parter feels like someone’s pushing extra hard to make it stick. Lee’s vision of floating in water while he’s drifting through space is a striking visual that builds to his confession to Kara that he wanted to die—which is a powerful idea, but one that doesn’t feel like it has a specific connection to Lee himself. You could have given just about anyone in the cast the same storyline, and it would’ve fit more or less as well. It’s beautiful television, and if the rest of the episode had been stronger, it would’ve served as a great way to balance the larger conflict. (And seeing the large scale battle through Lee’s perspective is just gorgeous.) As is, it’s tantalizing but incomplete.

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So, getting rid of Cain so quickly (and easily) is a bad call, and one that pretty much wrecks the first major victory the humans have against the Cylons, at least from the audience’s perspective. But on the plus side, while it’s a decision that screwed up a disappointing number of plotlines, there’s still hope. Cain doesn’t leave a lot of lingering concerns behind her, which means that next week, everyone can more or less be back to their old shenanigans, albeit with a few more people and an extra battlestar in tow. At least when the changes come this fast, you don’t have to wait long to see if things will get better.

Stray observations

  • Okay, while the raping interrogator guy is a fucking monster, and Helo and the Chief’s actions are entirely understandable (and ones I think most of us would take ourselves), Cain isn’t exactly wrong in ordering their executions. That’s what should’ve have made the conflict between her and Adama (and Roslin) so interesting. She refuses to compromise, whereas Adama has learned the hard way that compromise is sometimes the only way to move forward. It’s too bad that got buried under the “hey, she murdered civilians and is basically a monster” stuff.
  • Cain: “Do you always get what you want?” Starbuck: “Most of the time, sir.” Cain: “Good. Me too.” Again, this would have been so much more effective if Starbuck had had a chance to work with Cain longer.
  • Roslin is getting seriously shortchanged. She’s supposed to be dying in weeks, and she’s been reduced to the sidelines. Hopefully we’ll get more of her soon.
  • I don’t get the significance of the sports story. On a basic level, Baltar is sharing something Six shared with him in their private moments, which counts as some kind of a betrayal, but beyond that… I got nothing.
  • “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving.” This feels like a super important idea, and yet another moment in the second episode that needed more room to breathe. In general, I think the show never knows what to do with with the “what drives the Cylons” concept, but here it brings us right to the brink of something, before shrugging and backing away.

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